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Insight magazine

Matador Moves From 'Massacre' To Moment of Grace Posted Sept. 26, 2002
By Kenneth R. Timmerman in Arles, France
Media Credit: Cristina Abadia/EFE
In part because of his stellar performance in the previous years bullfights, El Zotoluco received top billing at the Feria du Riz.

For El Zotoluco, known to his mother as Eulalio Lopez, it was supposed to be a triumphant return to Arles, where at last year's Feria du Riz he performed with gusto and grace against the fighting bulls of the Miura ranch, the oldest and most prestigious finca in Spain. Instead, it was a massacre. His first fight was so bad that the crowd stood up to boo him from the arena, and booed him again when he came back for his second bull.

He claimed top billing as a matador and hailed from Mexico, giving him an exotic flair at the annual bullfight, which is held in the excellently restored Roman amphitheater in this otherwise undistinguished southern French town.
                                                      bullfighter El
The fight impresarios managed to ward off a legal challenge from the hard-left "animal-rights" crowd, which tried to convince a court in Carcassonne recently to ban all traditional bullfights in France. But the biggest challenge to the final day of this year's three-day feria in Arles was an act of God: torrential rain which, just one hour before the opening trumpets were supposed to sound on Sunday, Sept. 8, drenched the city, emptied the streets of revelers and food vendors, silenced the itinerant mariachi bands and filled the tiny canal saddled to the disheveled main street with gray muck. (Floods killed six people in the area that evening and the next day).

Seating at bullfight arenas varies in prestige (and price) according to whether you sit in the sun or the shade. It's been that way since the Romans first built the arenas that the French have restored. But today, more prized were cheap blue ponchos, available for $3, and the proximity of the huge stone porticos where the nonafficionados took refuge from the periodic gusts of rain.

But it wasn't the threat of rain that spooked El Zotoluco when the first bull charged out of the gates at the far end of the arena. The top-billed torero and his entire cuadrilla (the team of junior matadors, banderilleros and sword carriers that accompanies him) scattered like scared monkeys, taunting the dark brown bull with a quick fling of their yellow and pink capes then running as fast as fear could carry them for the gates.

The bull was good: Despite his weight 600 kilos (1,323 pounds) of lean muscle he was fast and his movements were quick. He was a noble bull. His charge was frank, focused and direct. He never swung his head around as some bulls do when they come in close, a gesture of apparent distraction that can be deadly to the unsuspecting. In one of his first passes, he tore away El Zotoluco's cape and tossed it up on his horns. When the picador entered the arena the bull charged from midring, slamming the armored horse like a freight train, nearly knocking the picador to the ground. Two of the banderilleros swerved away as the bull charged them and managed to get in just one of the long festooned banderillas each.

Perhaps it was the recollection of another Miura bull that had ripped apart his friend and fellow matador Juan Jos Padilla in Pamplona last year that spooked El Zotoluco. Going in for the kill on his second bull at the Fiesta de San Fermin, Padilla caught the horn and was opened up from his neck to the base of his spine. The encornada severed his esophagus like a razor and finished by smashing two vertebrae in his lower spine like a hammer. It was the type of wounding you never forget.

El Zotoluco never came close to this bull in the final faena, when the torero works his magic with the red muleta held stiff by the killing sword. His rough, hurried veronicas, instead of flourishing backward gracefully with the bull following him around, all ended in flight. His shoulder-high pechos were so distant from the bull that the audience jeered and catcalled. His performance screamed fear, not mastery, of the bull.

But the worst was the final death ritual. El Zotoluco faced off with the bull, then made a hurried thrust from the side as it charged toward him, getting the long sword in two-thirds of the way. The bull continued his charge, spun around and howled, popping the sword out of his body so it clattered useless to the ground. With a fresh sword, El Zotoluco tried again but only got it in half way. The crowd hissed. The bull still was strong and still charging. On his third try, El Zotoluco missed the bull completely, and the crowd erupted in a thunderous chorus of boos. Twice more he jabbed at the bull with the long sword without managing to sink it in. Finally, one of his assistants took the short butcher's knife used to execute the coup de grce, a single sharp plunge intended to sever the spinal cord at the base of the neck. He jabbed at the bull once, twice, and the animal continued to rage. Finally he just stabbed the bull over and over with the knife until it collapsed. By this point the crowd was on its feet, jeering and booing hysterically. "It's a massacre," someone called from below me. "Send him to butcher's school," someone else yelled. El Zotoluco left the ring with his head hung low, disgraced by a Miura bull.

When a fight goes bad like this, you can feel despair thick in the air. It is something palpable; it makes the heart beat faster, in expectation of some disaster. El Zotoluco's performance is a betrayal of the sacred trust between the matador, the audience and God. This is the pact that allows the matador to commit ritual murder, but only if he does it with talent, grace and with great risk to himself. El Zotoluco displayed none of this. Now we in the audience wondered if somehow we were not going to be punished for our sin.

The next two bulls came from different fincas, but they were just as noble as the Miura bull. French torero Denis Lor, the darling of the French audience, redeemed us with his close passes, his fresh style, his courage. During the final muleta, with the blood from the artful French picador Michel Bouix splashed across the bull's grey back but not spurting, Lor put the edge of his cape on the bull's nose, taunting him to charge. Again, to great applause, he offered the bull his entire body; then he leaned forward, thrusting his face into the bull's own, staring it down until he was satisfied, and he snorted and whirled around, victorious. After plunging in the killing sword, Lor held out his hand toward the horns as the bull wavered, pawed the crowd, wavered again, then collapsed in a tremendous heap. The judge awarded Lor an ear in appreciation of his skill.

In the next fight, Manolo Sanchez, the third and youngest matador, acquitted himself with calm skill and competence, wrapping the bull around his body to the delight of the audience.

But then, the dread returns. Each of the three matadors is booked to fight two bulls. Will El Zotoluco be allowed back into the arena? The crowd went silent as the president of the corrida announced the fourth bull, a 550 kilogram (1,213-pound) 5-year-old from the Vargas finca. They erupted in boos when he announced that the bull would be fought as scheduled by El Zotoluco.

And yet, the crowd went quiet when the disgraced torero came back into the ring. We saw immediately that something in his manner has changed. He strutted out into the middle of the arena, saluted the crowd with his black hat, to polite applause, then threw his hat onto the dirt and left it there in challenge.

When his picador entered the ring on his armored horse, the black Vargas bull charged and pushed the horse out of the end zone where the picador is supposed to keep him. He tried to work the long lance, with its three-inch blade, into the veins in the bull's back, but it was inelegant work. He withdrew the lance, repositioned it and pierced the bull again and again, but the bull just continued to master his horse and turn him around. The feeling of dread filled the arena once again.

Then, El Zotoluco entered with his red muleta and the crowd went silent. This time he was poised, standing erect and proud, calling the bull in a loud voice that carried from one end of the hushed arena to the other. He began with a series of pechos, the muleta held out shoulder high so the bull flipped it over as it passed beneath.

The audience realized something was happening, a transformation was taking place, and gasps of pleasure and applause erupted after each series of passes. El Zotoluco was taking risks, bringing the bull closer with each pass, until you could not see the space between the tip of the bull's horns and El Zotoluco's white "costume of light," as the heavily brocaded matador's vest is called. He stopped just two meters from the bull, wrapping the red muleta around him, offering his whole body as target, daring the bull to charge. He advanced one foot straight in front of him, not angled out from his body as most toreros do, but directly in front, and took short hops, edging closer and closer to the mesmerized bull. Finally, he took hold of the bull's horn and pulled the huge animal beneath his arm, guiding its pass, and the arena exploded in thunderous applause. El Zotoluco was redeeming us from his miserable performance earlier on. But he had just begun.

The bull now belonged to him, and he had total control. During one pass, he gave the animal a friendly swat on the shoulder as it went by. At another point, he took the horn again and inched his body forward until it seemed his entire torso was cradled between the bull's horns. Then he fell down on his knees, turned full circle right before the bull, just inches from its horns, and sprang up at the last instant just before the animal charged. El Zotoluco has alegria, that joy that comes from totally mastering the bull, and he shared it with us.

The crowd fell silent as he drew the long sword from the folds of the muleta, just a few meters in front of the bull. This is when it all could collapse, when the redemption he had worked for us can plunge us once again into sin. It was so quiet, we could hear the bull breathing.

El Zotoluco stared at the raging animal, calling him, all the while aiming the sword at the precise spot on the back that will send its tip directly into the animal's heart. He called him again and when the animal responded and charged, he also charged forward, plunging the sword into the hilt. The bull spun round and came in for another pass, then falls over, dead. El Zotoluco's perfectly executed estocada sent the crowd into a frenzy.

Suddenly, the bright blue ponchos in the arena were replaced by a sea of white, as people frantically waved white handkerchiefs in a sign to the president of the corrida to award the redeemed matador an ear, two ears, or even the tail, for his magical performance. People in the cheaper seats stomped on the metal bleachers above us, turning the applause and cheers into a thunderous roar that continued unabated as the team of workhorses was driven up to the bull and the red-shirted cleanup crew hitched their chains to the bulls legs to drag it away. Everyone was waving white handkerchiefs, and when the president signifies he will give no award to our torero, the cheers turned into boos as we hooted the president out of the ring.

Unperturbed, El Zotoluco took his seconds and began a slow walk around the arena, just beneath the first row of seats, basking in his triumph, pointing out friends and acquaintances in the crowd and taking his trophy from us if not from the judges.

We had all witnessed a moment of grace and it was as miraculous as any apparition of the Blessed Virgin, for with El Zotoluco we all fell low and now we had been redeemed in a magical reaffirmation of faith.

[Note: El Zotoluco returned to fight in the nearby French city of Nimes on Sept. 15.]

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine currently on assignment in Europe and the Middle East. His first encounter with Miura bulls was in the streets of Pamplona during the Fiesta de San Fermin in 1975.


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